Badass surf pics. Every time we see one, it makes us wish that we were out there rippin’ it up. If you’ve ever tried taking cool photos, you’ll know that it takes some mad skills to really make a picture pop. Lucky for us, we’re hooked up with some of Australia’s best surf photographers like Nate Smith, and he took some time out of his schedule to speak to us about life behind the lens.
The man has worked with the likes of Kelly Slater, Tom Carroll and Taj Burrow. His work has been featured on magazine covers and ad campaigns all over the world. In 2010, he took home two awards at the Red Bull Illume action sports photography contest. When it comes to making your passion your work, legen—waitforit—dary Nate Smith is what it’s all about.
Describe Nate Smith in a sentence.
Nate is a hard working, loyal man who loves getting out and about, meeting people and traveling. Loves dogs and meeting interesting people.
What is a typical day for you like?
Most mornings start with grabbing a coffee with my girl and walking my dog. If I know the waves are going to be good somewhere, I’m up before sunrise to go meet up with whoever I’ve pre-arranged a morning session with. Then back home to take care of the business side of things, sending emails, photos and planning on what's next.
How did you first get into photography?
I came from a fairly competitive surfing background where I surfed a lot of contests, chasing the Pro Surfing dream. I actually was forced out of the water shortly after I won a fairly big contest and the first place trip was to the Mentawais back in 1989 (or thereabouts). I sold the trip to a mate and got myself a camera whilst I was dry docked and healing, and just took photos of the locals guys and then sold them back to them for $5 a photo. I figured it was easy and a cool way to make some money and to also help fund my contests, but I soon gave those up and just kept shooting.
Has it always been surf photography right from the start?
It has been, pretty much. I assisted a Sydney based fashion photographer Adam Watson for many years, in which I really learnt a lot about shooting, finding your style and understanding film and how all that worked. I also learnt how the business side of things worked and how to deal with clients, invaluable really. Surf photography just came naturally, because I’ve always felt super comfortable in the ocean. But if you want to make in surf photography, you really do have to know more than one way of shooting. Just shooting someone on a wave won’t cut it these days.
Favorite surf beach and why?
I have many favorite spots, but my fave is really across the road from my home, South Narrabeen. It’s a great stretch of beach and gives me many options to shoot and surf on the odd occasion.
Who’s your favorite surfer to shoot?
All of the top pros have days where you know you’re going to nail something really special. But the obvious guys like Kelly, Julian, Dane, Jordy always give you something—they know how to work the photo side of things.
Besides surf, what are your other favorite photography subjects?
I'm really fortunate that I have been sent all over the word to shoot surfers, and that usually means going to all types of different places—from concrete jungles and big cities to isolated islands. It’s great to learn how to shoot a cityscape or a beautiful landscape while you’re in these places. I love shooting portraits and I have been working on this for some time now. I usually shoot at least one person in an official manner on every trip and try to incorporate the place that I'm at into the shot. I have a healthy appetite for learning all types of photography, so I’m never bored, that’s for sure.
What inspires you?
I get my inspiration from life. It’s as simple, yet as complicated as that. It’s good to just walk around and watch things go by. I notice things all the time, either when I'm out training, running, or walking with my girl and dog. I don't always have a camera with me, but I like to observe everything. I like watching other photographers, and I find people who are learning to take photographs very interesting. You can learn from everyone and everything just by keeping your eyes open.
Can you name a favorite photographer or work that has influenced you?
Toughest question yet. Well, there are lots really, but Jon Frank, Jeff Hornbaker and Ted Grambeau are some of the guys I most enjoyed viewing work from in the early days. There are so many people who take beautiful images, and I like seeing everything—good and bad. I really enjoy looking at what a few fashion photographers do too.
What kind of gear do you use?
I use all Canon gear at the moment.
What’s your favorite lens and why?
I think my canon 24-70 f2.8 series II, because it suits my needs perfectly. It’s an L Series Lens and glass—it’s hard to beat.
Do you have a favorite piece of work?
I have a few that stick out in my mind, but for different reasons. One is the Andrew Mooney shot that won the Close Up and Athletes Choice Award in the RedBull Illume back in 2010. Red Bull sent me to Dublin Ireland for a week of festivities, so that was cool. And another fave is a portrait shot of former pro surfer Nathan Hedge in Western Australia taken earlier this year. I like it for what it represents and what I somehow managed to capture that in the photo. Not everyone gets your personal work, but that’s the beauty of photography, it’s personal.
What is the one thing that you wish you knew when you first started taking photos?
One thing I wish I knew would be that although I get to go to a lot of really nice surf breaks, I have very little time to actually ride some of the waves. I hardly surf anymore that's one thing I need to change.
Is there a surfer/place that you really wish to photograph but haven't yet?
Yes, there is actually. It’s a place that’s been shot a bit lately but it’s a place I have not gone to myself—yet. It’s called Apocalypse, it’s in West Java and I want to get up there and put my spin on it real bad. It’s one crazy wave but sadly it’s very hard to get on. Soon though!
What’s your most memorable project to date?
Young guns II for Quiksilver. It was held on a BIG extravagant boat with the whole Quiksilver Team, and there was a helicopter strapped to the boat for 2 weeks. Easily the best way to shoot and the best trip I’ve done.
Is there a particular project you’re working on right now?
Nothing major, but I have started photographing Sydney CBD from a lot of different angles. I really love shooting cityscapes and after spending some time in NYC last year, I now see Sydney in a whole new light.
If you had to be a camera part, what would you be and why?
I would have to be some prime piece of L series glass, like a 50mm 1.2 lens. It’s a quality L Series Lens that would be always pointed at cool things, not a lens that would be replaced anytime soon.
What advice do you have for someone who’s thinking of getting into pro photography?
Make sure you have a backup job. That would be the very first piece of advice I’d hand over. And learn yourself—it’s the only way. No point asking someone how to do anything, as I believe if you do this, you’re shooting for the wrong reasons straight up. It’s fun to learn, so get out there and make mistakes and learn that way. Plus, it’s even easier now that we shoot digital. Find your own style and have fun.
What is your usual getup when you’re out shooting?
Well, now I’ll have my Rainbow Sandals glued to my feet. Normally in summer, I’m in shorts and a t-shirt. I don’t like sunscreen when I’m shooting (its ends up all over the place) so I usually have a really big lightweight towel over my head that goes down to my waist and to my hands. In winter, I’ll rug up accordingly.
What do you love about Rainbow Sandals?
What’s not to love about them! They look and feel great. They wear in rather nicely and mold really well to your feet. I can wear them anywhere and with anything—shorts, jeans, on planes, anywhere. They are pretty damn good. Get some.